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Unlikely Muses

Art Books: What to Read Now

Leonora Carrington in her studio. Photo credit: Agencia el Universal/Associated Press

BY Christian House
freelance writer for the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph

In Books

Wild Child

The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington

Most of us have a relative with a willful disregard for convention. For Joanna Moorhead it was her father’s cousin Prim, a family nickname that was to prove wildly inappropriate. Better known as the painter Leonora Carrington, she was, before her death in 2011, aged 94, the last surviving member of the Surrealist group of the early 20th century.

In The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington, Moorhead had produced an effective oddity, blending together art history, family memoir and travelogue into a hybrid biography. In the late 1930s, Carrington abandoned her affluent Lancashire family for a bohemian life. Seven decades later, Moorhead turned up at her door in Mexico City to get the full story.

And what a story it is. Carrington was born into privilege, the daughter of wealthy textile merchants. As a debutante she was presented to society at Buckingham Palace, dressed in elegant gowns and danced at The Ritz. None of which impressed her. Aged 20, she ran off with the artist Max Ernst, who was middle-aged, married and German, a trio of outrages for her parents to digest.

It set the standard for what followed. There were other lovers and scandals, periods spent in London, Paris, Madrid, Lisbon and New York before she finally settled down—sort of—in Mexico, where she became something of a national treasure. En route she fled the Nazis in France, was institutionalized in a Spanish asylum, married twice and created an impressive body of work.

While Moorhead is rather soppy on the brief affair with Ernst, who comes across as an unlikeable opportunist, Carrington’s talent as a painter is well recounted. Although overshadowed by Ernst, as was his third wife Dorothea Tanning, Carrington succeeded in creating a distinct style in the English Gothic tradition. 

With their tangled gardens, eerie country houses and sinister geese, her works drew more from the book illustrations of Arthur Rackham than the dreamscapes of Dalì. In fact, the most surreal thing about Carrington was that, while in life she escaped to the exotic climes of Mexico, at the easel she returned home.

*Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington is published by Little Brown

Dressed For Success

Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern

Georgia O’Keeffe. Photo credit: Fred Stein/Alamy Stock Photo

Across the border in the deserts of New Mexico, Georgia O’Keeffe took inspiration from her new surroundings. In Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern, art historian Wanda M. Corn explores an aesthetic—monastic, stark, sensual, tactile—that was shaped by the landscape at Ghost Ranch, the artist’s latter-day home among the redrock ridges of the Piedra Lumbre.

Corn takes the road less travelled to arrive at a woman who enjoyed isolation.  O’Keeffe was a talented seamstress and a vast collection of her clothes—sundresses and sandals, tunics and scarves, broad-rimmed hats and dusty work boots—have been conserved by the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. Like an archeologist, Corn has dug through the strata of garments.

In studying them, Corn discovers what can be “learned not only from paper archives but also from the material culture artists leave behind”. It emerges that the sharp lines and plains of strong color that are such a feature of O’Keeffe’s art also play out in her wardrobe.

In one photograph, O’Keeffe is perched next to one of her monochromatic mountain landscapes. “Not only did the black and white of her clothes repeat the same colors in the painting,” observes Corn, “but also the curves of the volcanic hills were echoed in the shape of her hat and the gentle flow of her suit.” 

O’Keeffe was no cowgirl—she wasn’t keen on horses, for a start—but some of her outfits are the stuff of pioneer town westerns. Her interests also extended to the East, exemplified by her late calligraphic watercolors and her selection of silk and cotton crepe kimonos.

“O’Keeffe drew no line between the art she made and the life she lived,” Corn writes. This was an “integrated life” in which the studio and the dressing room were in synch.  The defining elements were practicality, organic forms and an absence of ornament. This brilliantly researched book shows that in O’Keeffe’s bandanas and turn-up cuffs we discover the folksy face of Modernism.

*George O’Keeffe: Living Modern is published by Prestel

Feline Groovy

Of Cats and Men: Profiles of History’s Great Cat-loving Artists, Writers, Thinkers and Statesmen

Paul Klee as featured in Of Cats and Men (Quadrille) © Sam Kalda

The combination of male ego and artistic sensibility can create distinct types. There was Picasso, the swaggering ladies man. There was Pollock, the punch-drunk man’s man. And then there was Léonard Tsuguharu Foujita, the devoted cat’s man. The Japanese artist’s Book of Cats is one of the most valuable volumes of etchings in the world. Cats, it seems, have currency. 

But it was ever such. “For centuries, legions of forward-thinking men—artists, writers, scientists and philosophers—have shared their libraries and studios with a purring feline,” Sam Kalda writes in Of Cats and Men, his new collection of illustrations and biographical profiles.

The artists featured alongside other cat-crazy luminaries, from Sir Winston Churchill to Marlon Brando to artists such as Warhol, Cocteau and Klee as well as more esoteric names, such as the Victorian illustrator Louis Wain, the New Yorker cartoonist Saul Steinberg and the Afro-American collagist Romare Bearden. Often their mewing companions encroached on their work.

Foujita’s paintings and drawings feature cats lazing imperiously. In Youki au chat, 1923, which sold at Sotheby’s London this March for £608,750, Foujita created a paean to his beloved tabby, Mike (oh, and to his girlfriend). Essentially, Foujita believed that cats were put on this planet to teach men a thing or two about what he perceived to be the unfathomable actions of women.

Meanwhile, Wain turned kittens into kitsch, placing anthropomorphized specimens in trippy scenarios. “His images of dandyish cats playing golf, smoking cigarettes and strumming banjos became enormously successful,” Kalda writes. Meanwhile, Steinberg drew cats that bore a resemblance to him—he maintained a whisker-like moustache—and his work. “His drawings strike a balance of sophistication and play,” Kalda notes, “much like the felines he portrayed.”

Perhaps the most amusing anecdote in a book full of amusing anecdotes, recalls the laissez-faire nature of Paul Klee. On a visit to the artist’s Bauhaus studio, an American collector spotted Klee’s cat walking over one of his drawings and tried to shoo it away. A humorous Klee stopped him, saying that in the future art historians would scratch their heads and ponder how he got his distinctive footprint effect.

*Of Cats and Men is published by Penguin Random House

Bountiful Harvest

Plant: Exploring the Botanical World

Iwasaki Tsunemasa, Papaver somniferum from Honzō Zufu (1920–22), The National Diet Library, Tokyo. Courtesy the National Diet Library, Japan

If a Siamese cat can be a muse, then why not an oak leaf or an opium poppy? In Plant: Exploring the Botanical World, there is a comprehensive gallery of fantastic flora on display from the juicy mangosteens of Sri Lanka to the spiny thistles of Louisiana, each work executed by an artist with their own take on a timeworn subject.

Works date from Antiquity to the digital age and artists represented include painters (Yayoi Kusama, Piet Mondrian, Ellsworth Kelly, Vincent van Gogh), photographers (Man Ray, Brassaï, Imogen Cunningham) and even sculptors (Marc Quinn, Zadok Ben-David). There are also exquisite works by unknown hands (a 1500 BC Greek fresco of swallows pirouetting in the space between red lilies is just one anonymous highlight).

“At the heart of all botanical art is the intention to document a plant’s appearance,” notes botanist Dr James Compton in his introduction. “The ways in which artists set out to achieve this common purpose, however, has varied widely in both form and approach.” In these pages there are oil paintings, watercolors, drawings, engravings, lithographs, photographs, carvings and collages. 

The artists vary as much in discipline as delivery, with naturalists such as Carl Linnaeus and Alfred Russel Wallace sharing equal billing with old masters like Leonardo da Vinci and Albrecht Dürer. Even writers get a showing: Emily Dickinson’s flower pressings and Beatrix Potter’s illustrations are worthy additions. And while this book surveys scientific, medical and commercial research, it also details artistic whims and peculiar preoccupations. In this context, Robert Mapplethorpe’s phallic blooms are as welcome as Darwin’s sketches of Patagonian orchids. 

The accompanying editor’s notes provide illuminating details: Turner liked to draw common weeds; the Magnum photographer Werner Bischof created dreamlike photomontages of petals, stems and seeds at the height of the Second World War. An effective cross fertilization of text and imagery has created a book that is as lush and nourishing as a fruit tree in summer. 

*Plant: Exploring the Botanical World is published by Phaidon

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